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Leading change in permacrisis

Leaders today are faced with an unending onslaught of disruption. Rather than a step-by-step process typical of classic change management, leaders need a consistent set of mindsets and behaviors that they can deploy with agility.

by Steven Krupp and Jennifer Streitwieser

The speed and velocity of change has all of us gasping for air, time, and space. Leaders today are faced with an unending onslaught of disruption, both inside and outside their organizations. They are increasingly being called on to manage radical shifts and risks that originate well beyond the traditional scope of their role: a wide-ranging set of social and environmental issues, economic uncertainty, evolving workforce demographics and expectations, geopolitical conflicts, and artificial intelligence among them.

Given this context, leaders can no longer rely on classic change management practices. These were developed to address a particular event, such as the integration of an acquisition or a new system implementation. Classic change management is a set of tools and processes focused on helping leaders know “what to do.” Stakeholder maps, communication plans, and champion networks—all ways of outside-in learning—are hallmarks of a robust change management plan. However, even planned change rarely follows a predictable path. And navigating our current landscape of perpetual change requires an understanding of “what to do” and a fundamental mindset shift. Leaders need to personally embrace “how to be”: adopting a set of beliefs, mindsets, and behaviors that drive and sustain change agility and inspire others to follow. Rather than a step-by-step process typical of classic change management, leaders need a consistent set of mindsets and behaviors that they can deploy with agility.

Chart 1 for Change Leadership

Such “inside-out” learning at the emotional level enables leaders to:

  • Address multiple changes at once, driven by both internal and external forces 
  • Shift away from change activities, toward a focus on agile leader mindsets and behaviors 
  • Embrace change as a way of life with the conviction that leading change successfully is a competitive advantage
  • Align changes with addressing strategic imperatives and the organization’s purpose
  • Enable leaders at all levels to buy in and act as change agents 
  • Increase opportunities for feedback, dialogue, and engagement as part of navigating change

Our research and work have identified six mindsets and capabilities needed to lead change with agility in the era of permacrisis.1 We refer to them as TRAAIL: 

  • Trust: Create support and buy-in for a change-ready culture with transparent, inclusive engagement
  • Resilience: Lead with purpose, shared ownership, and grit to persevere through disruption, setbacks, and change fatigue
  • Anticipate: Prepare for change and uncertainty with foresight 
  • Adapt: Challenge old mindsets, embrace new ones, and foster openness to change<
  • Inspire: Communicate purpose, vision, and intent to build commitment for change 
  • Learn: Promote a growth culture, curiosity, and possibility-oriented thinking to iterate and sustain transformation
Chart 2 for change leadership

One company used this model to support a significant expansion of its product portfolio to accelerate growth in a shifting marketplace. At the company, “change management” had a bad connotation, as it was associated with reorganization and downsizing, and change management tools were viewed as task- versus people-centric. But to make the expansion work, leaders realized the organization had to change at scale. They wanted people leaders across the organization to build the mindset and skill set for leading change to support a long-term journey. To do this, they developed a learning offering that brought the TRAAIL dimensions to life via a series of modules, immersive experiences, and practical exercises. After 12 months, not only have leaders embraced the centrality of leading change, but the senior leaders report that there is a meaningful impact, and the application is stickier than ever before as change, agility, and growth mindset have all become part of leaders’ vocabulary.

Questions for leaders:

  • Are you and your peers embracing change with a growth mindset or resisting it?
  • Are you agile or inflexible in experimenting with new approaches?
  • Do you see the powerful role you can play as a change leader? 
  • Do you know “how to be” versus “what to do”?
  • Do you have the skills and tools to lead people through disruption constructively?
  • How well do you and your peers apply the TRAAIL behaviors (trust, resilience, anticipate, adapt, inspire, learn)?
  • Would it be useful to assess the strengths and gaps of leaders on these behaviors to improve your organization’s ability to change?

There is no doubt that in this permacrisis world, the ability to lead change with agility will separate the best from the rest and create a significant competitive advantage. 

Our question is: Are you doing all you can or need to excel in leading change?



1 For more of our research on agility, which emphasizes mindsets and behaviors and has evolved to include “trust” and “inspire,” given the continued erosion of trust and evolution of workers’ expectations since Covid-19, see Steve Krupp, “From blame to gain: Leading with agility in a crisis,” Heidrick & Struggles, heidrick.com; and Cynthia Emrich, Steve Krupp, and Amy Miller, “Developing future-ready leaders: From assessments to strategically aligned learning,” Heidrick & Struggles, heidrick.com.

About the authors
Steven Krupp
Steve Krupp is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ Philadelphia office and a member of the Heidrick Consulting, CEO & Board of Directors, and Healthcare & Life Sciences practices.
Jennifer Streitwieser
Jennifer Streitwieser is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles' Philadelphia office and a member of Heidrick Consulting.